First, let me say that I am totally ready to battle the accusations that I am pitting one black director against another. I am because the reality of more than one black film getting equal time during awards season is slim to none. So if there is a battle to be fought I am picking sides.
Let’s unpack your anger and mine.
“Mudbound” is a period drama, adapted from the novel by Hillary Jordan (no relation) about two families that are seemingly thrown together and torn apart by World War II. The story follows Henry McAllan, no wait Laura McAllan, oh no wait now we are on Hap Johnson then Florence Johnson, you dizzy yet?
As the narrative bounces from character to character we glean that a spinster is finally freed from the prospect of living with her parents and marries a quiet unromantic man, Mr. Henry McAllan, who provides a stable home but not much else.
Laura, played with the expected steel of Carey Mulligan, is happy as a homemaker and mother. She puts her all into ironing and making the meals, mastering the cutting board. Then in bed with the same delivery that someone delivers the prediction of bad weather, Henry, played by Jason Clarke, announces that the family is moving down south to care for his ailing father Pappy McAllan, played with convincing anger and bile by Jonathan Banks, and to start that farm career he has always been talking about to ABSOLUTELY NO ONE. HIs mid-life crisis comes as a shock to both Mulligan’s character and the audience. You almost are waiting for Gary Coleman to pop up from the 1970s and say “What you talkin bout Willis,” the decision is so ludicrous.
One moving truck later we are taken to a beautiful country home in Mississippi. Soon we discover that poor Henry isn’t just unromantic. He’s an idiot. He somehow owns a farm but can’t get a rental lease together.
The McAllan’s are homeless for about five seconds until they decide to move right down the street from the Jacksons, a black family just trying to make it as tenants saving up to one day own a piece land on their own.
Hap Jackson, played by Rob Morgan, is the loving father who is also the area preacher. He quotes the bible word for word even though he is just learning to read….yeah.
Mary J. Blige plays the strong and silent Florence who for some reason in half her scenes is still wearing the same shades she wore in the What’s the 411 music video. It is such a pity about this little prop misstep because when we can actually see Ms. Blige she deliveries a durable and capable performance of a woman beleaguered by bad luck, and random acts of nonsense from white folks.
Because of those same random acts that are both frustrating for the character and predictable for the audience Florence is forced to be the maid for Laura, Henry, and their kids. It’s not all bad though because when the Jackson family undergoes their own bit of bad luck Laura is there to prove what is ultimately the lesson for us all, including the academy, which is: not all white people are bad.
Then we cut to what I guess would be the main story but with six protagonists who can tell. Ronsel Jackson played to brimming angry perfection by Jason Mitchell and Jamie McAllan, played by the equally troubled Garrett Hedlund, must deal with the fall out of the war. They form a friendship due to their shared PTSD and fondness for alcohol to drown the pain. I am not judging, I have made lasting relationships happen with less.
The third act brings three things together which are all problematic in their own right. For the purposes of time, I am going to drill down on the one event that will most likely catapult this film to the annals of Academy glory. There is a scene involving Ronsel, Jamie and the KKK in what can only be described as the kind of random white racism that can be evoked on a black body. It is horrific. It is violent. It is upsetting.
Does it recall the situations of the present as many of my other colleagues have suggested? Probably. My problem is that from the black POV it’s the same old problems we are still facing, From the white POV, however, it feels like that kind of racism is still stuck in the ugly distant past of the south.
The reason “Get Out” was so powerful and faces being snubbed is that it puts racism firmly at the foot of progressive liberals in the north as well as conservatives down south. Racism is the gift that keeps on giving from all different types of people. After November 2016, We ALL know this now. However, the mission statement of “Mudbound” still seems to be to put racism in a very particular time and place which very few connections to the present. Violence against the black body in America is as old as the flag itself. Who takes responsibility for that violence is the ever-moving target. There is still great effort in this film to pull out the “see that isn't us it's them" placard from its dusty shelves.
What makes this movie so sad is that in the film as cake analogy, “Mudbound” has it all. Director Dee Rees made a stellar debut with her first film “Pariah.” Her skills are not wasted on the screen with the south taking a life of its own in this film. Mulligan and Mitchell are mesmerizing as two people who are practically humming with anger and disappointment at the promise and the outcome of their respective lives. Morgan, who has made a sturdy career of nuanced character roles, does justice to the black father trying to find direction in a world in which his control over his family’s lives is laughable. The way he finds joy in his God and his children and even in an honest day's work does not feel trite in his hands. It feels sincere.
As Issa Rae stated this past fall, I am rooting for everybody black. Her unapologetic support of black love was misinterpreted. I get it. She was just happy to see black artists get a chance to have their work critiqued amongst everyone else. All art deserves a chance to rise and fall on its own merit. I just hope “Mudbound’s” rise does not have to mean “Get Out’s” fall.